Ask the experts how to build a better meatball, and the answers generally are a pretty underwhelming, "It depends."
It's more than a case of chefs adding their personal touch to recipes. It also depends on which culture they draw their inspiration from.
The meat? Anything from turkey to tofu. The binder? Pureed rice, breadcrumbs, cheese, pulpy potatoes, an egg or two, and cream all can do the trick. Cooking? Fry, bake, braise. Maybe, a combination.
"It's all about personal taste," said Koren Grieveson of Avec restaurant in Chicago. "There is no secret science."
That's good news, because if there's no right way to do it, it's probably harder to mess up.
We were confident there must be ways to improve meatballs, regardless of variety. These are the tips we gathered from the pros.
Ÿ Ask the butcher for scraps.
Meatballs are not the vehicle for expensive tenderloin and sirloin. Meatballs were created as a way of using scraps, so start there, says Daniel Holzman, chef and owner of The Meatball Shop in New York. Diverse cuts of meat add depth of flavor.
Ÿ Sausage meat.
A quick way to skip the hassle of mixing meat is to take links of your favorite sausage and cut away the casing, Grieveson said. Mix the meat with breadcrumbs, spices, etc.
Ÿ Fat doesn't have to come from meat.
There is plenty of debate on what the right fat content of a meatball should be, though most people put it in the 20 to 40 percent range. But that doesn't mean the fat must only come from the ground meat, says former Top Chef Masters candidate Tim Love of Fort Worth, Texas.
If the meat is the flavor, the fat is what protects that flavor, stroking each ground morsel with moistness while it cooks, he said.
Butter, cream or cheese are all good additions. Harder and stringier cheeses – including cheddar, mozzarella and Parmesan – are good bets. A soft goat cheese will likely cause the meatball to fall apart.
Ÿ Liquid also is important.
Add water, says Joey Campanaro of Little Owl restaurant in New York. "The mixture should be wetter than you imagined," he said. "That keeps the meatballs moist. When you think about it, it's the very same concept as soup dumplings. It emulsifies the fat as you fry it. The meatballs stay moist. Without the water, the fat is going to go right into the sauce. You are going to have a greasy sauce and a dry meatball."
Ÿ Save old bread.
Toast the moisture out of the bread without burning it, then run it through a food processor or crush by hand. When combined with liquid, bread serves as a binder for the meatball. It also helps to retain moisture.
Ÿ Use a light hand when mixing.
Anytime you make something with bread, there is a fear of over mixing, said Liza Shaw, executive chef and owner of A16 restaurant in San Francisco.
"Mix it just enough but not too much," she says. "If you knead it too much you are going to get a tough texture."
To be safe Shaw recommends mixing the wet ingredients and meat mixture separately, then combining the two.
Ÿ Size matters.
The larger the meatball, the more work it takes keeping it together, Campanaro says. The outside also can overcook before the inside is done. About 1 1/2 inches – or the size of a golf ball – is a good size, he says. This prevents them from falling apart while being eaten.
Ÿ Always make a tester.
"You always have to make a tester meatball," Holzman says. "Making meatballs is like baking. What you get at the end you can't really change."
Before making them all, cook one and taste it. If it falls apart, add more of a binder. If it's too dense, add more liquid. This is also where you can adjust the seasoning, he says.
Ÿ Moisture depends on cooking method.
If you are roasting or frying meatballs, you would want a wetter meatball to keep the moisture from being sucked out, as the heat extracts liquid, Shaw said. If you are braising the meatball in red sauce, use less liquid. Cooking in the sauce will continue to baste the meatball, keeping it moist and from falling apart. If braising a meatball, taste it every 30 minutes. If it's tough, don't fret, braising it longer will fix the problem.
Ÿ Time adds flavor.
Letting a braise sit overnight allows the meat to take on more flavor, Shaw says.